The Social Consequences of China’s Economic Boom: A View from Yantian Village



The Social Consequences of China’s Economic Boom: A View from Yantian Village

Anthony Saich Faculty ResearcherAnthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title
Developing Social Citizenship? A Case Study of Education and Health Services in Yantian Village, Guangdong
CoauthorBiliang Hu, Beijing Normal University

It’s no secret that a boom is under way in China, the world’s fastest-growing economy, which has maintained 10 percent growth for three decades. It’s rapidly expanding gross domestic product has generated wealth and employment opportunities throughout the country, while also creating some problems.

For example, 30 million Chinese people have left their homes in the rural countryside to work in Guangdong province, in southern China, where they are often treated like second-class citizens — a situation that not only poses welfare challenges but, if unaddressed, might eventually lead to social unrest. In their paper "Developing Social Citizenship?" Kennedy School Professor Anthony Saich and Biliang Hu of Beijing Normal University focus on one village in that province, Yantian, which Saich regards as a "microcosm" of the rest of the country.

Passing through the area for the first time in 1976, a college student en route to Beijing, Saich saw a place where water buffalos roamed, rice paddies thrived, and time seemingly stood still. But that once bucolic spot is unrecognizable today. Its agricultural land long since paved over, Yantian, which is 20 miles from Hong Kong, is now a bustling commerce zone and export center.

A village in name only, Yantian is home to about 200 foreign-backed enterprises — and at one time hosted 400 such concerns?—alongside some 3,000 registered citizens and 80,000 migrants whose official place of residence lies elsewhere. "The two groups, while living in the same village, actually inhabit different worlds," the authors write. Those without formal household registration in Yantian have absolutely no say in local politics: They cannot vote or participate in village governance. Nor do they share in any of the annual dividends from renting the village’s land to outside companies or in other revenue sources. 

Although the inequities of the situation are striking, China has not ignored the plight of migrants altogether. Saich and Hu examine the social services provided to villagers, paying particular attention to education and health care. A 2007 ruling by China’s central government declared that migrant children were entitled to an education, and Yantian complied with that edict. This constituted a victory for migrant workers, yet the education afforded their children was inferior in almost every respect. Migrant children were placed in older schools that had shabbier equipment and skimpier operating budgets. There were more students per classroom, fewer teachers per student, and the teachers had less training and education than those working in schools reserved for residents.

The story regarding health care is similar. In 2000, Yantian achieved universal medical coverage for its residents, both permanent and migrant, though inequities persist. "Although medical insurance was expanded to include migrants, they tend to go to inferior clinics for treatment, just as migrant children are sent to inferior schools," Saich notes. Furthermore, he points out, there are actually two classes of migrants — those who are officially known to be living in the area and an indeterminate number of people who are, as Saich puts it, "just floating around, informally living and working in the area." These undocumented migrants are accorded even less status, he says, and are offered nothing in the way of education or health care. They have to pay for private child care and schools, and they are also limited to private health clinics that are mostly unlicensed.

"Compared to a lot of developing countries, Yantian village has made great progress," Saich says. "The fact that they are including many of the migrants in education and health insurance shows that they are on the right path. But the lack of a political voice is the most significant problem in the village, and that’s true across China." The central government is trying to promote measures that will integrate migrants into places like Yantian, while local residents are pushing back. Though it remains to be seen how this drama will play out, Saich is likely to keep a watchful eye on the proceedings.

— by Steve Nadis

“Although medical insurance was expanded to include migrants, they tend to go to inferior clinics for treatment, just as migrant children are sent to inferior schools.”

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